Recently I was told that I’ll never “develop as a person” if I continue to read novels instead of more serious non-fiction titles. It’s hard to explain my reaction when confronted with this view: a mix of exasperation, incredulity and facepalming. But sadly, this is a common misperception among self-help book devotees. I couldn’t bring myself to get into it with this guy at the time but it’s been really bugging me ever since. So here’s a quick breakdown of why it’s a mistake to discount fiction.
1. It increases intelligence
Let’s start with the obvious one: reading expands your vocabulary. People who regularly read fiction have about 2,000 more words in their vocabulary than those who don’t. And vocabulary is important, probably more important than you realize. You can express and explain yourself more clearly and understand others better when you have a good vocabulary. It also improves your written communication skills, which is essential if you want to do well in this world. And of course, the biggie: those with a strong vocab do better on IQ tests. Hence, reading fiction makes you more intelligent.
2. It improves emotional intelligence
And it’s not just IQ. Reading also increases emotional intelligence (EQ). In books, you only get so much information about characters. You see their relationships and their interactions but you have to figure out their motivations and intentions yourself. When you do this in book-land, it makes you better at doing it real life, too.
3. You’ll be more emphathetic
Hand in hand with this, reading fiction increases empathy. It makes sense. You’re putting yourself into the mind of someone else when you read. And it’s not that people who are naturally empathetic are more likely to be fiction readers – it’s been shown that it’s the actual act of reading fiction itself that increases empathy. And empathy is basically what holds society together. Without working together and understanding each other, humanity would be doomed.
Some really fascinating studies in this area looked specifically at the Harry Potter series but it’s been shown with other books as well. Harry is empathetic to marginalized groups and those who are transported to Harry’s mind by reading the series show less prejudice in real life.
4. It enhances analytical skills and neural connectivity
The brain is constantly sifting through information, sorting and catalouging like a librarian. If you’ve ever tried to guess the end of mystery novel your brain will be like that librarian on crack. You’re searching for plot holes, you’re trying to come up with alternate endings, you’re making connections between events and details. It’s a brain workout for sure. Not surprisingly those skills translate to real life. Researchers have measured neural connectivity before, during and after reading ficiton – not surprisingly, reading a novel increased brain connectivity.
5. It makes you more creative
All that guessing the ending, trying to problem-solve characters out of thier situations, etc., is creativity at work. And being creative is actually whoppingly good for your health. It increases positive emotions, lessens depressive symptoms, reduces stress, decreases anxiety, and even improves your immune system.
6. It reduces risk of Alzheimer’s
Reading fiction is a memory test. You have to recall the characters and their back stories, the conversations, the plot, etc. Don’t believe me? Just try reading Game of Thrones! Reading fiction is a fantastic workout for our memories and readers have been shown to have less memory loss and less characteristics of Alzheimer’s in later life, compared to non-readers.
7. It boosts happiness, reduces stress, and helps you sleep
A good novel makes me happy! Reading ficiton is a way to disengage from the world. We live in a state of constant cognitive overload, so putting our brains into a trance-like state via reading is deeply relaxing and can reduce stress and help you sleep. It’s no wonder readers are less likely to have depressive symptoms than non-readers. And the benefits of fiction in this space are obivous. I love a good non-fiction read but it doesn’t give me that warm, calm, feeling like a novel does, and it certainly doesn’t help me sleep! I find when I’m feeling stressed out that I almost automatically reach for a Harry Potter book: it helps me disengage from my worries and troubles, relaxes me, and lets me happily drift off to sleep. You could say it’s magic.
So, to Mr. You’ll-Never-Develop-As-A-Person, next time you feel like reading, I humbly suggest you pick up a novel yourself. It might just open your mind.